This Post is Not About Chris Heisey or Steve Jobs (18 Game Capsule 2)

Most biographies of influential people can be read as both history and inspiration, teaching the reader about a factual timeline and an atypical mindset that drives a person to change his surroundings. Some bios, however, serve as a cautionary tale... ‘WARNING: This person's success was largely a function of his intersection with specific time and space coordinates. Do not attempt this at home.'

Ironically, the real star of Walter Isaacson's recent book on the life of Steve Jobs was not Jobs himself, but rather Jobs's "reality distortion field", the coined phrase of Jobs's co-workers which described his pattern of seeing the world as he wanted it to be instead of how it generally was. In one sense, this delusional capacity facilitated the success of Jobs and Apple; deadline struggles and technical impossibilities washed away under the famous withering glare of the iconic executive. Since Jobs had surrounded himself with brilliant and driven technicians, the strategies tended to work. Other business lessons abound in the book too, including the importance of aesthetics, and the genius of a simplified product suite.

As a point of contrast, I have no doubt that every single person reading this knows at least one person who also views the world more as they want it to be rather than how it is. I also have no doubts that these reality distorters are not as successful as Steve Jobs. Which brings us to the 2012 Cincinnati Reds.

In the past, I've made no bones about my fandom of Chris Heisey, Official Favorite Player of This AuthorTM. I try not to be stupid about it, though. Heisey has a quick bat, good power, several holes in his swing, okay speed, and a reliable glove. He's not a great player, but he's useful.

The timeline of Heisey's career, vis-à-vis a Reds fan who shares the same alma mater, translates as follows:

2006-07: Hey, look: there's a Messiah College guy in the Reds system.

2008-09: I think he just might get a shot at making the bigs.

2010: He is getting a shot, and he's not terrible.

Early 2011: When are they going to get rid of Jonny Gomes already?

Late 2011: Woo-hoo.

Early Winter 2011-12: I think the position is his.

Late Winter 2011-12: Ryan Ludwick?

2012: They both suck.

As the title promised, this is not an article about Chris Heisey, but is instead intended to be about thought processes. I'll get there, but let me first interject a tangentially related comment: I don't dislike Ryan Ludwick nearly as much as I thought I would. He's come through big in at least one game I can remember, and I've found over the years that I really only have room for extreme dislike for one current Cincy player at a time. Fortunately for Ludwick, Willie Harris was here for 5 weeks or so.

Back to the matter at hand. Ryan Ludwick and Chris Heisey currently form one of the more unusual platoons in baseball history. Both are right-handed batters, both have paired capable power with suspect on-base skills, and both play left field. Rather redundant, but the team message, delivered with the just so measure of confidence and acumen, has been that the two would rotate according to matchup style. Heisey against the power pitchers, Ludwick against the junkballers. The two would complement each other properly, and the left field whole would be greater than the sum of the parts.

That it hasn't worked out that way is not an indictment of management, per se. It's still relatively early in the season, and there are others on the team who are not yet hitting as well as one would have reasonably figured, and sometimes the right moves don't exactly work out anyway.

Of course, despite the caveats it's also possible that the reasoning was more bull than brains. To reach a verdict, let's examine some numbers.

Using Pitch f/x data from Fangraphs, here are the general pitch type frequencies and effective rates for Chris Heisey over his career:

Fastball frequency

Fastball effectiveness

Changeup frequency

Changeup effectiveness

Breaking frequency

Breaking effectiveness

2010

59%

-0.16

12%

1.67

28%

0.63

2011

61%

0.48

9%

-2.84

30%

2.76

2012

67%

-0.58

10%

-0.51

23%

-3.93

Before we get any deeper, a few definitions. Fastballs, for the purposes of this table, include a variety of fastball variations and also represent sinkers, since they generally sit around 90 mph, and may be indistinguishable from, say, a split fastball. Breaking balls are mostly sliders and curves, but also include the rare screwball and knuckler. "Effectiveness" represents the runs above average (using linear weights) per 100 instances of the given pitch. If you're a bit skeptical, I don't blame you, but apparently the data's pretty good. Let's go with it.

Regarding Heisey, I'm not sure I see any real patterns, except he's certainly seeing more fastballs this year, true to management's wishes. There's not enough data to establish a trend, but my first reaction to this table would be that there seems to be little predictive power in the pitch effectiveness rates. At any rate, Heisey sure seemed to hammer breaking balls last year. Alas.

Here are the same data for Ludwick, since 2009:

Fastball frequency

Fastball effectiveness

Changeup frequency

Changeup effectiveness

Breaking frequency

Breaking effectiveness

2009

53%

1.34

11%

0.43

36%

-0.57

2010

61%

0.36

12%

-1.72

28%

0.16

2011

62%

-0.41

9%

-1.11

29%

-0.26

2012

56%

0.01

12%

-3.86

31%

-2.25

Again, in a self-fulfilling mandate, nearly half of the pitches Ryan Ludwick has seen to date this year are off-speed. Naturally, he seems to be hitting the heaters better than any other type of pitch, the author sarcastically noted. Again, however, if there were any foretelling clues to be found in this data pre-season, they're not patently obvious.

Baseball-Reference provides a very simple split in its voluminous database: how well does a given hitter hit against power pitchers, finesse pitchers, and those in-between? The definition has been set such that the top third in a league's strikeout-plus-walk category equals the power group, while the bottom third are the finesse guys.

Power pitchers are generally highly sought commodities, and with good reason. In 2011, this simply defined group was harder to hit. National League hitters averaged a 665 OPS against the power group, 709 against the middle third, and 743 vs. the soft-tossers. When raw data matches intuitive sense, it's a good bet that we're staring truth in the face. For purposes of this evaluation, let's throw out the middle group and focus strictly on the power and finesse pitchers. To make the data a bit more palatable, we'll say that hitters are +78 against finesse pitchers (743 - 665). This spread fluctuates a bit from year to year, but 2011 fairly represents the NL average spread over the 2009-11 period (+80).

Over that same period, Ryan Ludwick has demonstrated an even more severe spread against the hard/soft dichotomy: Average OPS of 662 vs. power pitchers; 782 vs. finesse (+120 spread).

Fans of foreshadowing have already guessed the next sentence, or at least the gist of it. Chris Heisey's hard/soft spread has been nearly triple that of Ryan Ludwick. 583 OPS vs. power pitchers; 936 vs. finesse (+353 spread). I'd be willing to bet that given a legitimate number of minimum plate appearances, there aren't ten batters in the League with a wider positive spread against power/finesse pitchers than Chris Heisey.

As I stated in the beginning, Chris Heisey is not a great player, but he's a useful asset. Whether the reasoning was based on reality distortion or just after-the-fact excuse making, the Reds bought themselves a completely redundant player, then tried to bend the facts into a workable strategy, with the possible (and predictable?) result of having marginalized a pretty good 4th outfielder. While so far in 2012 neither player has been all that impressive, against any pitching sub-group, the communicated strategy is telling, in that it's not particularly based in anything tangible, at least to my eyes.

Talent generally trumps strategy, in nearly all walks of life, but that's primarily because most people/businesses/baseball teams gravitate towards similar strategy paths. Bold plans can differentiate, for good or ill, which means they're worth pursuing for those teams who tend to live on the margins. Distorting reality, without sufficient talent surplus? That's generally a recipe for disappointment.

All stats through Wednesday's games.

*******************************

2012 Reds, Capsule 2

Overview:

Wins/Losses: 10 - 8

Strength of Schedule: .514 (5th most difficult in NL; 7th most difficult in ML) [Prev: .534, 4th most difficult in NL; 8th most difficult in ML]

RPI (ESPN): .517 (5h best in NL; 9th best in ML)

[Prev: .526, 4th best in NL; 9th best in ML]

Cool Standings postseason odds: 40.3% [Prev: 25.5%]

Cool Standings division odds: 15.0% [Prev: 11.9%]

Offense:

  • .248/.302/.425 (AVG/OBP/SLG) for the team, compares to NL average of .254/.322/.395
  • Regulars, as defined by most plate appearances: Hanigan, Votto, Beep, Cozart, Frazier, Heisey, Stubbs, Bruce
  • I love when both Bruce & Votto are hot for simultaneous stretches (which is really just code for: I love when Bruce is locked in). Combined numbers: 18 doubles, 11 sham-a-lama-ding-dongs, 32 RBI
  • With 17 walks, Votto represented 35% of the team's free passes.
  • On the flip side, Hanigan didn't walk once, despite this generally being the most reliable part of his game.
  • Proof that Dusty's been picking out the right guys to fill the lineup: Rolen, 5-for-32; Ludwick, 4-for-30; Mesoraco, 4-for-28; Valdez, 1-for-11. (.139 aggregate batting average, yo.)
  • Ludwick whiffed on 14 of 30 at-bats.
  • I'm not saying anything profound here, but when an offense profiles as basically average, as the Reds did this go-round, but the charge is driven by two guys, and the offense is power-heavy and OBP-light...that's going to make for a very, very hit-or-miss kind of team. Frustrating, you might say. If any of the up-the-middle guys start producing with regularity, plus the occasional hot streak from Frazier/Heisey, it's on.
  • To that last point, the offense has basically sucked, and the team is still two games over .500. I think that's a good thing.
  • Stubbs, as I recall, was highlighted in a 3-4 game stretch as really standing out during these last 18. For the full period, however, his OPS was 7th out of the 8 regulars.

Pitching:

  • Team ERA of 3.09, against league average of 3.84.
  • Bronson Arroyo had more strikeouts (18) than innings pitched (17.7)
  • Four relievers recorded at least 11.7 K/9 (Stax, Chappy, Dondo, and The Cure).
  • Bullpen combined for a 1.62 ERA.
  • Despite the Atlanta melt-down, and despite a seemingly deficient 4.7 K/9, Johnny Cueto led the starters with a 2.00 ERA. The primary skill at work is keeping the ball in the yard: 1 Donkey Kong Hit Bomb, 27 innings pitched.
  • Opponents batted .077 off of Aroldis Chapman.
  • It's easy to manage a bullpen when everybody's awesome: every single reliever faced between 28 and 36 batters.
  • Mike Leake "led" the team with a 5.94 ERA. He also allowed five unearned runs, meaning his RA was 8.22 for the stretch.
  • The theory is that successful middle relievers can be cheaply and easily found. Proving the rule, perhaps: Al Simon and J-Hooves, each with one run allowed in 7.3 frames.
  • That pitch that Chapman made to strike out Jason Heyward.
  • Team DER dropped from .696 to .688, good for 12th best in the NL, and 23rd best in the bigs. They've been slow starters with the glove in the past, too, before ending up towards the top of the league.

The next 18:

  • 8 games at home, 10 on the road
  • 7 of the 18 against divisional opponents
  • 3 of the 18 against 2011 playoff teams
  • 3 of the 18 against American League teams
  • .498 average winning percentage (2012) for the teams in the next 18 games.
  • Can you remember the Reds being so ill-suited for games to be played in an AL park? Who plays DH? Todd Frazier is probably the most likely candidate, meaning Valdez or Cairo or Costanzo gets some extra playing time. What an abomination (interleague play is). The only redeeming feature will be if the Reds light up Andy Pettitte for 16 runs or so.
  • It's still likely a bit early for any serious moves from outside the organization, and there aren't any obvious matchups between poor performers and strong replacement candidates. This means that the obvious big question, barring catastrophe, is ‘when does Aroldis Chapman get promoted to the rotation?'. One assumes that the question within the question is how many innings has management slotted Chapman for. Since this is an 18 game feature, here's a simple table of expected innings based on when a pitcher gets bumped from the pen to the staff, assuming 10 innings as a reliever per 18 team games, and assuming 6 innings per start:

Becomes a starter after game...

Expected inning count

0

194

18

183

36

171

54

160

72

148

90

136

108

125

126

113

144

102

What's a reasonable number? Does a mid-season transition matter? If we suppose for a minute that 150 innings is a decent target, then we ought to start to see some clues in the next couple weeks. There's an argument to be made-reasonably-that Chapman has been so good as a reliever, that why mess with it? The clearest answer is that the potential marginal gains by replacing Leake with Chapman are massive. If Chapman begins to be used 2 or 3 innings at a time, start licking your chops. Make it happen, Walt.

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